Having been run on the streets of Monte Carlo since 1929, the people’s love for the Monaco Grand Prix has never waned. The glitz, glamour and unique history of this circuit, make it one of the most magical on the calendar, a fact that has seen it named as Formula 1’s jewel in the crown.
It is considered one of the hardest circuits on the calendar to master, with its tight and twisty, narrow track, making overtaking difficult and pushing the driver to their limits, asking them whether they are willing to risk going all out to claim the reward of victory. There is a fine line between the barrier and the perfect move, which makes it a favourite track of the drivers as well as the fans, as it gives them a true challenge of their driving abilities.
It is also quite unique in its layout, being the only track to include a long tunnel as part of the lap, which forces the driver to adjust their eyes to the glaring sunlight as they exit. It is unique features like this that make Monaco so special. From the swimming pool, to La Rascasse, to Tabac and Anthony Noghes, these world renowned sections make the circuit stand out from the crowd, and are loved across the globe.
Although the basic layout of the track has more or less stayed the same across the years, some adaptations have been made. Originally, the start/finish straight was alongside the harbour and the first corner was the old Gasworks hairpin, now no longer a part of the circuit. It was switched to its current location in 1963, making Ste. Devote the new first corner, an area that has provided plenty of action throughout the cource of a race, for many years now.
In 1973 the introduction of a swimming pool by the harbour, saw the building of a new section to allow the cars to run around the perimeter of the water feature. The pool has now gone but the section still remains. La Rascasse and Anthony Noghes, named after the organiser of the first Monaco Grand Prix, were also introduced at the same time, replacing the Gasworks hairpin.
Turn six has been renamed since its inclusion, previously being called the Station hairpin, due to there being a railway station on the approach to the corner. In 1973, a hotel was built and the hairpin was re-named to incorporate the hotel’s name. It is currently known as the Fairmont hairpin, but has also been known as Loews, and is amended any time a change of ownership at the hotel takes place.
During the 1950s and 60s, fans and photographers were separated from the cars, not by barriers, but by wooden fences and hay bales. These were not ideal sources of protection, for driver or spectator, and when Lorenzo Bandini lost control of his Scuderia Ferrari, when running second in 1967, they showed just how deadly they could be. The Italian hit a guard rail which sent him skidding into a pole that ruptured the fuel tank and rolled the Ferrari. Sparks from the damaged engine set the hay bales alight, and with Bandini trapped underneath, he was unable to get out of the ensuing blaze. Sadly, three days later the Italian died of his injuries, which included third degree burns to 70% of his body as well as ten chest fractures. Hay bales were banned from grand prix racing from that moment on. The whole track is now enclosed by barriers, tyre walls and catch fencing, in order to help protect the drivers, marshals and spectators, whilst giving the drivers a real thrill as they left with no room for error whatsoever.
Another individual feature in Monte-Carlo is the miniscule paddock area. It is the size zero of the grand prix tracks, with its narrow, tight and twisty confines, and team trucks are sent down the road one at a time and in garage order, so as to ensure they unload their wares in the right spot in the paddock. With such a tight squeeze already for the F1 teams alone, it means the junior formulae squads, who complete the support races on the Monaco Grand Prix programme, have to find an alternative solution.
Although the support race teams (such as GP2 and GP3) use the same pitlane as F1, they are unable to use the garages, having to leave their equipment under awnings in front of the pits instead. They also use a car park which is located 1.5 miles from the official F1 paddock. Some of the GP2 teams will be able to share the pit wall perches used by the F1 teams, but this option is not available to all, whilst each team has a zone specified by small markings in the pit lane, in front of the F1 garages, to indicate where their ‘mock-up’ pit box will be during the race. It is an interesting set-up, and despite sounding chaotic, usually works out well.
There are many individualistic qualities to Monaco and you will find more and more become apparent, as you get to know the iconic track. The grand prix of Monaco is the only race weekend where FP1 and FP2 take place on a Thursday, instead of Friday. This is primarily so that the roads can be open to the public and residents again on the Friday, so as not to disrupt their lives more than is necessary, but it makes for a change from the norm, and is another nuance that makes it so very special.
As one of the most long standing venues on the F1 calendar, no other location has hosted as many races as Monaco. It was part of the inaugural Formula One world championship in 1950, hosting the second round which was won by Juan Manuel Fangio, for Alfa Romeo. There was a four year gap before the next race in 1955, but from then on in there was a race held in the principality every year.
In the early days it formed part of motorsport’s triple crown, along with the Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours, winning all three was a feat that only Graham Hill managed to accomplish. The Brit was considered a master around the streets of Monte-Carlo, a fact that saw him nicknamed ‘Mr. Monaco’ after he took five wins in seven years at the Monaco Grand Prix. His courage and sheer determination allowed him to drag any car around the dangerous track.
Hill’s record in Monte Carlo was not surpassed until Ayrton Senna arrived on the scene and went one better than the Brit with six victories at Monaco. Five of those were in consecutive years from 1989 to 1993, the Brazilian was just sublime on the streets of the principality.
Senna’s qualifying lap for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix is now legendary, and is considered one of the greatest laps in F1 history. It was as if the Brazilian and his car were as one, as he wound around the streets to post a lap that was 1m427s quicker than team-mate and main rival Alain Prost. A huge margin in those days, the Brazilian was untouchable.
Seven time world champion Michael Schumacher was another driver who was at one with the car in Monaco, matching Graham Hill’s record of five wins there. Despite his brilliance at this track however, the German will more likely be remembered for the time he span his car during qualifying for the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix. The German skidded across the track, finishing in front of the Rascasse hairpin, which brought out the yellow flags, and therefore blocking his competitors from being able to beat his time. Schumacher certainly knew how important pole position was for claiming victory at the Monaco track!
One of the craziest results ever seen in Formula One history, let alone Monaco, was that of the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, when just three finishers managed to take the chequered flag. Rain had started to come down during the morning practice session, which left a wet but drying track for the drivers to contend with by the start of the race, and that through up all sorts of incidents as the race got underway.
From the very first lap the errors and technical failures began. First Jos Verstappen was forced into the barrier when Jacques Villeneuve attempted a pass on Mika Hakkinen at Ste. Devote, whilst the Minardi of Giancarlo Fisichella was taken out by his own team-mate Pedro Lamy. Even Michael Schumacher, master of the Monaco track, found himself in the barrier coming out of the Loews hairpin after getting on a wet kerb, whilst Rubens Barrichello also found the barrier as he span his Ferrari at Rascasse. After just two laps, the grid was down to just sixteen runners, from the initial twenty-two, and the race had turned into mayhem.
The retirements continued on, with the field reduced to thirteen drivers by lap four. At this point race leader Damon Hill had carved out a four second lead over second placed man Jean Alesi, who was ahead of team-mate Gerhard Berger, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harold Frentzen. But that all changed when Berger had to retire to the pits with faulty gearbox electrics, and the driver dropout rate increased further. That left twelve drivers still in the running, and a lull in retirements, saw the racing continue uninterrupted for a short while at least.
Frentzen had been pestering Irvine all race trying to find a way through, but was unable to make a positive move to pass the Irishman. On lap seventeen, the German could hold back no longer and whilst attempting to make a pass on Irvine at Ste. Devote, careered into the back of the Ferrari, wiping off his own front wing, and forcing him into the pits, ruining any chance for victory.
On lap 26 race leader Hill pitted for slicks, after seeing Frentzen who had just been lapped, putting in fastest lap times on doing the same. It was perfect timing, and Hill was comfortably able to take back the lead from Alesi, once the Frenchman had made his pit stop.
It looked like the Brit had the race in the bag, until a red warning light began to flash on the dashboard of the Williams-Renault. Unfortunately for Hill a bolt in his oil pump had come loose allowing fluid to drain away, and forcing the Brit to retire his car on track, signaling the end of his race. Alesi took the lead, ahead of Olivier Panis, who had started from fourteenth on the grid, but the French-Sicilian was also to be plagued with technical woe, having to retire on lap sixty when a rear spring on his suspension broke.
As more and more drivers either retired or took themselves out of the race, it was clear that the two hour race limit would be reached before all 78 laps had been completed. With just seven cars left in the fight, the rain started to fall once more. The race ended for three of those remaining drivers when Irvine spun his car at Loews, at the very moment Mika Salo was coming around the corner, with Hakkinen right behind him. A three-way shunt was inevitable, and all were forced to retire from the action.
On the penultimate lap of the Grand Prix, the unlucky Frentzen had to retire to the pits, which left Panis to take the race victory ahead of David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert, the only drivers to finish the race at the end of the 75 laps (having reached the two hour limit, three laps prior to the usual 78).
That was just one of the many memorable races seen at the iconic Monaco track, a place where magic appears to ooze from its very core, and you cannot help but be dazzled by the mystique that emanates from its historic past.
Monaco will forever be the jewel in the F1 crown, there is just no other race like it. It is crazy to think that had it not been included on the calendar when it was, it would probably never have been approved under today’s safety regulations, and no Monaco would quite simply be unimaginable!